Art Review: ‘Poets and Painters’ at Tibor de Nagy and Francesco Vezzoli at Gagosian

rivers portrait of john ashbery Art Review: ‘Poets and Painters’ at Tibor de Nagy and Francesco Vezzoli at Gagosian

After losing a villa in Budapest, being imprisoned by both Germans and Russians, and immigrating to New York, Tibor de Nagy, with John Bernard Myers, founded a marionette company. It failed as a marionette company but reemerged, in 1950, as the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. In honor of its 60th anniversary this year, the gallery, which was also a center for the New York School of poets, has mounted a copious but deftly balanced show called “Painters and Poets.”

You are greeted at the door by the poets James Schuyler and John Ashbery, in Fairfield Porter’s painting Jimmy and John. They sit in the same room but not quite together, gazing off with concentration as if posing for a portrait is one thing on their minds, but by no means the only thing. This is appropriate because Mr. Porter’s cool, tan portraits, several more of which punctuate the walls, are less about the final effect achieved than the act of looking thoughtfully, and the show altogether is like passing through the middle of a large and urbane but suspended conversation.

There are, of course, simple collaborations, like two American flags with poetry over them by Joe Brainard and Ted Berrigan, a large collage by Larry Rivers and Kenneth Koch, two paintings by Frank O’Hara and Grace Hartigan, and Stones, a set of 13 lithographs by Mr. Rivers and Mr. O’Hara. Joan Mitchell contributes two light, simple color-field drawings for poetry of Mr. Schuyler’s. (A squarish yellow sun accompanies “Daylight”: “And when I thought, / Our love might end” / the sun / went right on shining.”) There are complex collaborations, like the charming, three-panel painting Triptych: Madonnas and Poets, by Red Grooms and Ann Waldman of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Jack Kerouac with their poetry, or Rudy Burckhardt’s photo of Messrs. Rivers and Koch with their poem-painting New York, New York. And there is the network of acquaintance among the pieces themselves: Jane Freilicher’s lovely, deceptively simple portrait of a painter’s table, with brushes, turpentine and tubes, and her equally sweet study of the smokestacks, purple sky and yellow windows of New York at night, hang across the room from Nell Blaine’s vivid portrait of Ms. Freilicher herself reading. Mr. Koch, in Mr. Porter’s portrait, is also reading, and both of them, you must suppose, are reading one of their colleagues’ books published by Tibor de Nagy Gallery and displayed here under glass.

The single most often recurring note in this conversation among friends is the poet Frank O’Hara. He appears in a good-natured ink drawing by Ms. Blaine, a plaster bust by Mr. Rivers, a short film directed by Richard O’Moore, a straightforward silver print by Fred W. McDarrah, striding purposefully out of the Museum of Modern Art, and, I felt almost sure, standing next to me in the elevator on the way out of the building, on his way to get a cup of coffee at a diner downstairs.

Francesco Vezzoli’s show “Sacrilegio,” at Gagosian, looks back to the grand Surrealist tradition of empty symbolism and showy, toothless provocation. After dodging around a wall adorned, like a handbag, with the artist’s monogram, you enter a faux Renaissance chapel. In each of the alcoves, enclosed in a melting, gold-colored frame, is an inkjet reproduction on canvas of a Renaissance madonna whose face has been replaced with a contemporary supermodel’s, and onto which Mr. Vezzoli has embroidered tears.

Naomi Campbell, à la Cima da Conegliano, gazes complacently at the viewer, perhaps in the moment before throwing a phone; from her eyes float embroidered shapes like a child’s alphabet pillow. Claudia Schiffer wears one spangled, puffy eye like a coin purse, and the artist’s monogram, again, like a tattoo on her hand. Stephanie Seymour has “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena” written in her halo and several pink daggers pointing at her eyes.

There’s also a video installation of the artist’s mother singing Soeur Sourire’s early-’60s pop hit “Dominique,” and, where the altar should be, a tall stained-glass Jesus, with the artist’s face in black and white, holding an enormous knitting needle.

You may wonder whether this is all self-conscious and intentional, whether there are satirical wheels within wheels. But the needlepoint, which the show’s press release describes as being, for Mr. Vezzoli, a “profound and contemplative activity,” gives you your answer: There are no wheels. The artist is simply trying to have his cake and eat it too, to indulge a leering fascination with celebrity but also claim that he’s joking, just in case. George Orwell once pointed out that the goosestep is funny on purpose-its whole point is that you’re not allowed to laugh. “Sacrilegio” is our contemporary, consumerist equivalent: It doesn’t make you laugh, but it insists that you’re supposed to.

editorial@observer.com